Reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan made me think more about food than I ever have before. For something so fundamental to human existence, it’s amazing how little thought I give to the stuff on the end of my fork (or spoon). I’m a large man and I can’t deny that my appetite is hearty, to say the least. But most of the cognitive work I do regarding my food generally concerns finding out where it is and how I can get more of it. I never thought about the eponymous problem: what to eat when you can eat anything.
The author takes a more contemplative approach, taking four separate meals and using them as jumping off points for a deeper exploration of human beings complicated relationship to the stuff we consume. Four different meals: one fast food value meal eaten in a car, one prepared using organic ingredients, one prepared using ultra-organic ingredients gathered during the author’s time working on a small farm, and one featuring meat and vegetables he hunted and gathered with his own two hands. Along the way, Pollan takes a wide-ranging view of the process by which plants and animals (and other things) go from their natural state to the end product on out plates.
He spends a good chink of the book talking about corn, the monocultured agricultural juggernaut that drives U.S. food policy. Pollan takes a dim view of the role that corn plays in the way Americans eat. He excoriates the baffling economic forces that drive American corn farmers to produce more and more ears of the yellow stuff even as the actual consumer demand for it shrinks. A complicated system of government subsidies and industrial processes that require corn-derived products like high-fructose corn syrup for nearly everything keep the process moving. There’s a certain hippy-fied scorn for The Man and his Big Agriculture in Pollan’s writing, especially when pondering the role that capitalism has played in the development of sustenance as product, but The Omnivore’s Dilemma never feels hateful enough to devolve into full-on screed. It opened my eyes to some of the inherent dangers in our evolving approach to eating. Pollan is a big fan of grass-fed beef, pointing out the numerous ways in which nature has ill-equipped the cow to subsist on corn. Its stomach isn’t built for it.
My favorite section of the book detailed Pollan’s time on an organic farm. After a section discussing the ambiguities of the term “organic” and the ways in which the foods we find in the supermarket that bear that label are barely discernible from their more industrially produced cousins, the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma takes a much less ambivalent view of small, locally produced organic food. He seems to reach the conclusion that mass-produced and distributed food is necessarily different from what most people imagine when they read the pastoral reflections on the organic food labels. Unless it comes from a farmer’s market or other source that utilizes regional producers, “more organic” is the best that the food can be. The producers can take a more sustainable, less chemically-dependent approach to raising livestock and vegetables but the need to meet economies of scale and transport the goods necessitate certain industrialized processes.
It is only Polyface Farms (and those farms like it) that seem to meet Pollan’s expectations for how farms ought to run. The author clearly has a soft spot for the owner of the farm, a christian libertarian named Joel Salatin who takes a thoughtful approach to the way his farm is structured. There is something to Pollan’s romantic portrayal of a man determined to take a personal, face-to-face approach to both raising his animals and dealing with the people who buy his food. Pollan drives the contrast home by comparing Salatin’s open air abattoir where customers can see their chickens being slaughtered and look the farmer in the eye as he does it with the secretive, hidden, and unknown processes by which industrial slaughterhouses turn cows into steaks. The difference is as philosophical as it is a matter of efficiency.
This section of the book made me want to be a farmer, a career aspiration I can honestly say I have never felt before. And I am notoriously ranging in my ideas for what I wanna be when I grow up, from F.B.I Agent to writer to professional fighter. Farming never appealed to me, but after seeing the intellectual and logistical challenges that go into creating food coupled with the satisfaction (I imagine) one feels in growing your own food. Part of the romance of the idea comes from the numerous innovations Pollan ascribes to Salatin. It makes farming sound like an adventure.
The ending section, wherein Pollan grapples directly with the moral complexities of humans as omnivores is also immensley satisfying. He touches on issues like animal rights and the problems with vegetarianism, beyond the whole “not getting to eat Double-Doubles” thing. He talks about how we have evolved to use culture as a way coming to terms with the omnivore’s dilemma and bemoans the lack of a coherent food culture in American society.
I can be hit-or-miss with nonfiction work but Pollan does an excellent job at taking on complex issues with an engaging tone and an admirably light touch. The result is a thoroughly engaging layman’s approach to food. A natural history of four meals, as the subtitle says.